More money generally means more science, and vice versa. But the source of the money - whether from public or industry well-springs - may be as important in determining the type of research that gets funded as well as the direction that research may take. During the last several years, the percentage of industry funding relative to public funding has grown (see Box). For example, industry funding of clinical trials rose from $4.0 billion in 1994 to $14.2 billion in 2003 (in real terms) while federal proportions devoted to basic and applied research were unchanged, according to a study1 last fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This trend, according to some life science policy experts, threatens the independence of basic research. Others, however, see a move towards an increase in industry funding relative to public funding as a sign of the health of scientific enterprise.
"If institutions become too dependent on private funding sources, the academic research focus could move too heavily toward development," warns Robert Gropp, director of public policy at the American Institute of Biological Sciences in Washington. While this may be initially attractive to industry, he predicts that in the long term a decreased focus on basic science would strangle the free-thinking, creative research historically found in academia.
David G. Schetter, assistant vice chancellor at the office of technology alliances at the University of California, Irvine, is not only skeptical that increased industry funding would trigger a decline in support for basic research, but he also ascribes industry opening its coffers to basic research as a sign of the stronger connection between basic research and how drugs are designed and evaluated. In other words, it's an evolutionary development reflecting better science. "Increasing funding from the private sector for university trials reflects a greater dependency on university clinical scientists with close ties to basic scientists found only at universities," he says. "This reflects a growing insistence from the FDA for mechanism-based drugs and scientifically grounded assays. This is all very healthy and all leading to greater private-sector funding for university trials."
Schetter believes that an increase in industry funding would actually give academic scientists more say in clinical trial design. "If drug houses are spending more of their money on university trials, why would you conclude that university scientists have less control? I would reach the opposite conclusion. The universities have an ever greater role in saying what measures, and outcome predictions, will dictate the design of trials."
The Real Issue: Public Funding
While, theoretically, increased industry funding could harm basic research, allows Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, there is little risk of it actually happening, at least in the United States, he says. Industry funding for campus-based R&D has traditionally accounted for less then 10% of total US funding, he points out. "In fact, most universities seek more industry R&D funding in order to diversify from their overwhelming reliance on the federal government," he says. Universities are now more concerned that the National Institutes of Health seems to be moving away from basic research toward more applied tasks, especially in the areas of biodefense, vaccine development, and clinical research, he argues.